Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


When I was a kid I didn't really dislike brushing my teeth, but sometimes that was just one too many things to do. So when I had forgotten, and my mom asked me whether I had remembered, of course I lied. But then she started checking behind me: “Your toothbrush isn't wet.” Okay, well, at that point it became a challenge. So I would wet the toothbrush and then head for bed, feeling victorious. But then one evening she said, “It’s wet, but it doesn't smell like toothpaste.” Dammit. So the next night I wet the toothbrush, I put toothpaste on it . . . and at that point I realized that it was actually less trouble to brush my teeth than to try to fool Mom. So I brushed them.

I often think of this experience when it’s time for my students to turn their papers in. Now, Wheaton is a Christian school and while we’re not sinless by any means, there really is a good deal less cheating and manipulating than I experienced in my state university days — but still, some people do look for ways to game the system. And they find them, even when, sometimes, the gaming is more trouble than getting the work done.

The only way a teacher assigning papers can certainly avoid being gamed is by adopting a policy that’s impossible to sustain, for instance: “You will hand your paper directly to me by 5 PM on the date assigned. No extensions, no excuses.” That would work — except that sometimes people have legitimate excuses. So you try to factor those in — and bingo, you’re open to being gamed. Someone’s computer crashed just as he was about to print. Someone else put her paper in your mailbox and can't imagine why it’s not there. Someone else emailed the paper to you last night — what, didn't you get it? (I have my students email their papers, and a couple of years ago I had a student tell me not only that she had sent a paper that somehow never made it to my inbox, but also that she failed to get my email messages telling her that I didn't receive a paper from her. Though she got all my other emails. Curious.)

So you try to close the more obvious loopholes, but — if you’re realistic — you’ll know that can't close them all. Indeed, you could go crazy trying, especially with options like this one available. Now that’s clever!


  • Remarkable! I think if I were an economics professor, I would allow students to purchase assignment extensions directly from me via competitive auction, from a limited supply determined before the class began. It would teach them about bidding dynamics, and would also lessen the problems students can have with inflexible deadlines.

    Man, I should have studied economics more.

  • That corrupted file thing is sadly brilliant. Of course, when they submit their actual paper a smart professor could simply check when it was created and last modified.

  • I have a hard time imagining a technologically adept instructor
    "buying" this ruse. The simple defense here is to require students to
    copy and paste the text of their papers into the body of an email in
    addition to sending an attachment. In an ideal world, of course, all
    instructors would require students to hand in papers in a transparent
    and universally accessible format --- i.e., plain text. But given the
    complacent attitude of most academics towards Microsoft Word and its
    bloated, proprietary binary format, "that ain't gonna happen" anytime

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